Practical Ecommerce

7 Keys to Managing Online Communities

In last week’s article, “3 Inexpensive Tools to Build Your Own Social Network,” I reviewed three platforms to build niche online communities. However, making a community a vital part of your marketing efforts takes more effort than selecting the platform. It needs active management. This article covers seven keys to effective community management.

1. Identify a Purpose

There has to be a unifying purpose that holds the members together.

My favorite definition of community is “come into unity.” If you aim to build a vibrant, growing online community, it’s imperative that you have a clearly stated goal with which members can identify, rally around and take some degree of ownership.

An excellent example of one niche community that understands this principle is OfficeArrow.com, a site dedicated to the needs of office professionals.

In an introductory message to the community, OfficeArrow founder Mike Lewis makes this statement:

OfficeArrow is the place where small businesses, entrepreneurs and office professionals can promote themselves, their products and connect with other professionals through the business center, marketplace and community.

His declaration leaves little room for doubt as to the purpose of this community and its intended audience.

2. Communicate the Purpose, Repeatedly

Remind members of the reason for the group. The old adage, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them again, and then tell them what you told them” really does have merit.

A monthly email newsletter is a great communication device for this. It’s easy for members to get distracted and forget why they joined the community. That’s why regular communication is important. It keeps the community and its vision top of mind with members.

3. Find a Community Leader

Rather than spend all your resources on the technology platform, allocate a budget to hiring someone to oversee and provide leadership to the community.

The commonly accepted title for this role is “community manager.” I don’t favor that title, however, because I think the role extends far beyond mere management. But, whatever the term, find someone who can commit time and attention to building the community.

If it is not feasible to hire someone, another option is to recruit active members to serve as community moderators. For example, in addition to managing the Practical eCommerce LinkedIn group, I also assist with providing leadership to other groups — for free — where I have an interest. You might be surprised to find people more willing to help out than you would expect.

If neither of those options is available, then managing the community is a task you must be willing to assume. Regardless of the manner in which leadership is secured, one thing is certain: groups cannot be left to fend for themselves.

4. Use High Quality Content

Most people that join online communities are lurkers who don’t contribute content or even offer comments. Lurkers are consumers, in other words. As such, it is imperative that you provide helpful content.

Here are some guidelines for content creation.

  • Remember the needs of the community. Share resources that members find valuable. That could include links to articles, blog posts and videos. Plenty of online information is available for just about any topic. Subscribe to RSS feeds from relevant websites and blogs, use Twitter search or Google Alerts.

  • Submit your own content. If you publish a blog or create videos or podcasts, syndicate that content to the community.

  • Ask others to submit content. This might come in the form of a weekly guest post from existing members or industry experts, where appropriate.

  • Host a weekly poll or conduct member surveys. Even something as simple as posting a question is a way to solicit member response.

  • Feature a community member of the week. Interview this person.

  • Host a weekly, scheduled chat session. Choose a topic interesting to your members.

  • Publicly welcome every new member. Encourage others to do the same.

  • Solicit feedback from members. Ask about topics members have an interest in, then make every effort to provide it.

5. Don’t Get Discouraged

Don’t be discouraged if you see little initial activity from group members. Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen coined a term for this: the “90-9-1″ rule. It states:

  • 90 percent of users are the “audience,” or lurkers, the people that tend to read or observe, but don’t actively contribute;
  • 9 percent of users are “editors,” sometimes modifying content or adding to an existing thread, but rarely create content from scratch;
  • 1 percent of users are “creators,” driving large amounts of the social group’s activity. More often than not, these people are driving much of the site’s new content, threads, and activity.

Community managers are often befuddled about what is necessary to build a vibrant, interactive online community. It begins by understanding this “90-9-1” rule.

6. Encourage Active Engagement

If you provide the initial leadership, a core member group will likely take a more active role.

Some members will be more oriented toward content creation in the form of blog or forum posts, video and podcasts. Others will form groups, and still others will contribute via comments.

That’s why it’s important to utilize a technology platform — such as the three I reviewed last week: Ning, Groupsite, and vBulletin — that can facilitate any forms of communication and interaction.

This core group will provide a majority of the community-generated content, at least at first, and the group’s involvement will pay great dividends going forward. “Compensate” core-group members with time, attention and other non-monetary rewards. Even something as simple as a sincere, heart-felt thank you will go a long way toward securing their ongoing, active involvement.

7. Kick Out Polluters, Quickly

Easy-to-join online communities are vulnerable to the broken-windows theory: Criminals gather in neglected areas. If spammers beset your community, boot them quickly. Have clearly published guidelines so community members will know what types of content are acceptable — and the consequences to those who ignore them.

Paul Chaney

Paul Chaney

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  1. tomwilko September 12, 2011 Reply

    Thanks, Paul. Excellent post. I especially like all the tips you packed into item 4, Use High Quality Content.

  2. Ilona September 13, 2011 Reply

    Terrific post, Paul, and thanks for the OfficeArrow.com mention. We’re introducing new tools and technology to enable small business owners to work quicker, more efficiently and sell more. More to come.

  3. Alexia McCormick October 18, 2012 Reply

    I think number four has to be by far my most important. I think everything comes down to quality content and usually the rest just follows along. Great post I enjoyed it thoroughly.